| Issue 367
and Regional Affairs
By Jeffrey Young
Washington, February 06, 2009 – On Tuesday [February 3] with great
domestic fanfare, Iran put its first satellite, called Omid, into orbit.
But to leaders and analysts in the west, the satellite launch represents
a forward step in Iran's apparent quest to be both nuclear capable and
able to deliver a warhead on target.
Just days ago, Iran joined the nations who have a presence in space. The
satellite Iran put in orbit has heightened concerns in Washington and
elsewhere about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
In October, 1957, the then-Soviet Union launched its first satellite,
Sputnik. Overnight, the West was forced to face the reality that if
Moscow could put a satellite in orbit, it could also put a nuclear
warhead on target.
Today, many analysts say they believe Iran appears to be focused both on
nuclear weapons and missile capability. The motivation, they say, is
self-protection, which is usually called "deterrence."
"They want a nuclear weapon to defend their territory, defend their
government. They live in a very tough neighborhood. They are surrounded
by nuclear states - Russia, China, Pakistan, India. And, too, Israel and
the United States," The Ploughshares Fund, President Joseph Cirincione
But at the White House, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs framed Iran's space
launch as potentially aggressive. "This action does not convince us that
Iran is acting responsibly to advance stability or security in the
region," he said.
Israel has been able since the early 1980's to reach at least part of
Iran with its Jericho II missiles. And many analysts say a longer range
version is being developed. Diplomatic experts say, to Iran's leaders
that is a justification to become nuclear capable.
But reaching deterrence with Israel or any state is, perhaps, still
years away according to nuclear analyst David Albright, founder of the
Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
"Iran has a formidable challenge to be able to put a nuclear warhead on
a ballistic missile," Albright said. "If the missile is going to be
small, then it has an even greater challenge, because the nuclear
warhead has to be small. And it can be very difficult, particularly for
a country like Iran to actually make a warhead small enough to fit on a
Iran continues to complete its nuclear reactor at Bushehr with Russian
A general view shows the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power
plant in southern Iran (File
The Bushehr facility is visible. But much of Iran's nuclear program is
hidden behind a wall of denials, though there are some structures in
Natanz and Arak that have been identified by experts as strongly
resembling nuclear facilities.
Though the International Atomic Energy Agency is not allowed to conduct
on-site verifications, western powers suspect Iran is planning to use
enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons.
Senior defense analyst Anthony Cordesman outlines what is known:
"Iran officially denies that it is seeking nuclear weapons."
"It is also moving forward with centrifuges which can be used to
produce nuclear weapons materials."
"It is moving forward with a heavy water reactor, which is a way of
producing plutonium that cannot be controlled."
The United Nations, with strong U.S. and European Union backing, have
imposed three rounds of sanctions. But Iran has refused to comply with
demands to halt its nuclear program.
Joseph Cirincione is one of a number of analysts who see three options:
"One is military attack. Most experts agree that would damage the
program. But, it might actually accelerate it, and it would certainly
start a third war in the Middle East.
"The second is sanctions. Try to convince Iran that unless it stops
the program, its economy will grind to a halt. There is no evidence that
"The third is engagement, to actually negotiate with Iran, and use
some of the pressure of sanctions, but also, provide the incentives. We
have not tried that yet. While the Europeans have been engaged in talks,
it is really the United States that is the key."
But Cirincione and others say that the upcoming elections in Iran, and
the desire by its leaders to continue to portray the United States as
the enemy, will likely prevent or dampen any official response for now
to President Barack Obama's recent overtures.